Bee talk: She studies these insects for a living


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At the beehive section at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), Nairobi, a middle-aged woman is engrossed in her work.

Nelly Ndung’u is an entomologist or insect scientist at ICIPE. She explains that the species of bees she is handling does not sting at all. Also called meliponines, these are one of the dozen varieties of stingless bees found in Kenya, smaller than regular bees and which naturally nest in trees. Nelly, whose specialisation is molecular biology of stingless bees, holds a MSc in Biochemistry, and is currently in the final year of her PhD in Entomology studies at the University of Pretoria in South Africa.

What does your job as a molecular biologist involve?

My job is majorly research-based. I carry out studies on the various species of stingless bees in Kenya. We have 12 stingless bee species in the country. I have studied their nesting sites, nest architecture, morphometric (body sizes, wings measurements) and DNA barcoding (molecular analysis) and chemical profiles from the DNA extract of the worker stingless bees.

How is insect science relevant to the economy?

Stingless bees are important in production of honey and for pollination. The hypotrigona group of stingless bees produces honey with high levels of antibacterial, antifungal and anti-tumour properties, qualities that make it suitable for medicinal purposes. This honey is also produced in very low quantities and is therefore very expensive. There is rarely commercial production of honey by stingless bees. Research in this field seeks to find ways to boost production by breeding the bees. In light of the global decline in honey bee populations, conservation of stingless bees is important to sustain their value to pollination and honey production. Through bee pollination, horticultural produce such as fruits increase in quantity and quality.

What are some of the specific activities in your job?

I travel a lot for fieldwork. Sometimes I visit Kakamega Forest, Mwingi, and counties at the coast to record the nesting sites for stingless bees, collect and nest the colonies and also interact with beekeepers. I also carry out molecular laboratory tests, involving the extraction of insect DNA, amplifying the DNA sequences and analysing the DNA. This helps to determine the various kinds of bees in our ecosystems and how they relate to each other. Data analysis is another key activity in this profession, where we use different software for scientific examination of our specimen.

How was your attraction for insects developed?

As a child, I thought that all insects were dangerous to human beings. I was particularly fearful of bees, because of their stings. At the time, I did not know that stingless bees existed. As I went through school, I found myself more inclined towards sciences, and in high school, biology was my favourite subject. I grew keener about insects, and whenever I came across them, I would try to study their behaviour. I would observe with fascination and curiosity as bees and butterflies perched and flew from one flower to another in our yard. Gradually, my fear of bugs was worn, while my attraction for bees grew. Entomology was my destiny.

If you were not an entomologist, what else would you be doing?

As a molecular biologist, I have, for a long time, desired to study parasitology, with a focus on malarial mosquitoes. It is an area into which I could go by applying my knowledge of insects to carry out studies, otherwise, I would be an accountant, having been excellent in maths and commerce. 

Are there notable shortcomings in this occupation?

Foremost, research endeavours are expensive. The equipment for study of these insects is expensive. It becomes even more difficult here, where the economy is not stable enough to  sufficiently finance intensive scientific research. International organisations such as ICIPE, International Fund for Agricultural Development and the European Union step in to offer support. Studying the genetic makeup of any organism is a time-consuming task that keeps one in the laboratory for long hours. Sometimes this leaves no room for socialisation. 

More attention has always been given to science subjects/courses in Kenya. Are there gains to show for this obsession with sciences?

Gains may not be much as yet, our main problem revolving around our economy. We are moving in the right direction nonetheless. Research is an integral cog in the wheel of a growing economy, without which our development will be hard to sustain.

To achieve vision 2030, the government, through its various agencies, must place emphasis on scientific undertakings by improving budgetary allocations to the National Commission for Science Technology and Innovation (NACOSTI) and lobbying for more funding from donors.

Leading economies in the world such as the US and China, despite their prosperity on all fronts, continue to spend billions of dollars in research. Science courses should be supported more.

Besides the pay, what are the other delights in this profession?

It is mesmerising to work with insects. Observing how they live in well-organised and harmonious communities is a gripping experience. The industry of stingless bees is something to behold. Carrying out a research project to a successful conclusion gives me an elating sensation. It also allows me to travel across the country and meet amazing people as I visit conservancies, farms and forests to research. These trips help me to break the monotony of working in the lab.

What does one need to study to become an insect researcher? Which college/universities offer this course in Kenya? Is the tuition fee affordable?

One needs to do science courses such as Biochemistry, Biotechnology, Zoology and Entomology. These courses are offered at Egerton University. Other public and private universities in Kenya also teach them. The fee is not high for students studying in public universities under the government-sponsored programme.

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